Living light means keeping our conscience clear through our decisions, not creating any burden for others, and trying not to increase the burden of our existence on the earth’s resources.
Since we are both architects and have been a part of this profession in a variety of roles for around four decades, living light also means being conscious about the impact of our decisions on the built environment, and how, in turn, this impacts the earth, the context, the end users, the client and the profession itself.
Through our design practice, we learnt many decades ago that our decisions matter not only to the end users of the buildings and the spaces but also to the resources of the country, of the rest of the world, of the earth as a whole. They matter to our society and are relevant to its existence, growth, harmony and the collective good.
Thirty years ago, when we started our practice, we decided that all our projects would attempt to conserve resources in their widest possible meaning, and our designs would become responsible by being contextual in all respects. We believe that we must ensure the continuity of our traditions and evolve designs that are, in their spaces, forms and spirit, representative of India.
Explorations in these directions led us to the vast treasure of India’s underutilized traditional wisdom and knowledge base: the use of local materials, human skills and crafts. In the company of traditional craftspersons, we began to feel extremely “light” in carrying out our professional responsibilities. Our design solutions became extremely simple, time-tested, long-lasting, highly sustainable and, most importantly, passed through the sieve of common sense.
There are three specific directions in which we have explored this understanding through our work. All of them attempt to achieve energy conservation, sustainability of resources and use of traditional wisdom and knowledge invested over centuries in our craftspersons. All of them also employ the “bottom-up” approach to sustainable design— what we like to call “hamarewala green”—as practised in India for centuries. This means minimizing consumption levels as opposed to the top-down approach more popular in the West (and now filtering into India as “green”), which focuses only on maximizing savings.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The first direction covers the design of buildings, minimizing the use of electrical and mechanical energy used for human comfort. The Torrent Research Centre in Ahmedabad, designed using this approach, has saved so much energy that in 13 years, it will recover the entire cost of the building from energy conservation alone. Its energy consumption (per sq. m) for the first seven years of its use stands at a quarter of the standard value targeted in this region by The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri)… and one-ninth of what a typical mall consumes.
The second direction involves getting our historic buildings and ruins in usable condition through appropriate conservation processes at lower investment costs, using traditional materials, technologies, crafts and craftspersons. The most prominent example of this is the conservation of what is now known as the Anokhi Haveli, Amber, near Jaipur. It has been a recipient of the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Conservation 2000 award, which has had a ripple effect. This recognition gave major impetus to the heritage conservation movement in Jaipur, with the government allocating Rs50 crore of its infrastructure budget to Jaipur and Amber’s built heritage in 2001.
The third direction tries to re-establish the relevance of traditional decision-making processes, materials, technologies and craftspersons to contemporary buildings, making them more sustainable. The bulk of our traditional wisdom and understanding is still relevant in today’s context. This wisdom is still carried forward by our traditional craftspersons. However, unless professionals, building owners and developers generate employment for their knowledge base and skills, these are likely to disappear soon. The Oberoi Udaivilas at Udaipur, for which we were the principal architects, is an outcome of this belief. It generated employment for approximately 300 craftspersons over the three years of its construction, involving around a dozen traditional crafts. In the six years since it opened, the demand for these crafts has increased manyfold throughout India.
We believe that each one of us has the option of avenues to contribute to reducing our burden on the earth. The choice of finding the options, committing ourselves to them and implementing them is with us, not with someone else.
The authors are architects based in Ahmedabad.